Georgia’s state reptile is in line for some much needed help from a federal Farm Bill program. But interested landowners have only until April 30 to apply for financial assistance through the new Working Lands for Wildlife partnership.
Working Lands for Wildlife teams the U.S. Agricultural Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to conserve wildlife by restoring populations of declining species and strengthening rural economies through productive working lands.
Outreach to Georgia landowners will involve using innovative approaches to restore and protect gopher tortoise habitat in the southern half of the state, and to a lesser extent – because habitat is limited on private land – the golden-winged warbler in north Georgia.
Landowners can apply by April 30 through the NRCS’ Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (www.ga.nrcs.usda.gov ). The cost of conservation practices will be shared for qualifying sites.
Nongame Conservation Section Chief Mike Harris of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources welcomed the new partnership. Referring to gopher tortoises, Harris said, “We’re excited about the opportunity to focus Farm Bill programs on a species of concern that also benefits other wildlife.”
Found below the Fall Line, gopher tortoises are called a keystone species primarily because the burrows they dig in sandhill habitats are used by hundreds of other species. Yet, threatened by habitat loss, these large land turtles are state-listed as threatened and a candidate for federal protection in Georgia and the rest of their eastern range. (They are federally listed in Mississippi, Louisiana and western Alabama.)
Working Lands for Wildlife will help private landowners in Georgia create, manage and maintain pine savanna habitat for breeding populations of gopher tortoises. The primary practices will be planting longleaf pine, conducting prescribed burns and removing mid-story hardwoods.
A State Wildlife Grants project in which the Nongame Conservation Section inventoried Georgia’s sandhills habitat, favored by gopher tortoises, helped identify counties the program will benefit most.
For more information about the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program and other Natural Resources Conservation Service programs, visit www.ga.nrcs.usda.gov  or contact a local NRCS office.
For details about the Nongame Conservation Section, part of DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, go to www.georgiawildlife.org  or call (770) 761-3035, (478) 994-1438 or (912) 264-7218.
Gopher Tortoises and Longleaf Pine Savannas
- Longleaf pine forests are some of the world's most biologically diverse ecosystems and provide critical habitat for the gopher tortoise and threatened and endangered species. The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species and an indicator of longleaf pine ecosystem health.
- Gopher tortoises depend on deep, well-drained soils and an open understory that provides open, sunny sites for nesting. Its burrows provide vital habitat and shelter for many at-risk species. The gopher tortoise also aids in seed dispersal for several plant species.
- Habitat destruction, degradation and human predation have greatly reduced the gopher tortoise populations. More than 90 million acres of what is now the southeastern U.S. was once covered by longleaf pine savanna. Today, about 3.4 million acres remain.
- More than 80 percent of gopher tortoise habitat is in private or corporate ownership.
Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service